Something More Than Crappy Pilsner

Paul Blow

Not long ago, a backpacking jaunt through Europe wasn’t complete without a stop in Prague. Yes, there was Kafka’s house, the Jewish cemetery, and all those pristine old buildings, but the most salient memory for many was the beer.

If you were in your early 20s or, even better, not yet of legal drinking age in the States, those frothy mugs weren’t just beer—they were frothy mugs of freedom. Smooth and medium bodied, these beers had the comforting sweetness of rich grain but finished with a cleansing bitterness, leaving you wanting more.

Then you came home and tried to re-create the experience with American “pilsners” like Miller Lite, which touts itself as “a true Pilsner beer.” Disappointing doesn’t begin to describe the result.

The Czech Republic’s gift to the world is one of the great—and most abused—beer styles. Good pilsner is electric and addictive. But these days, the term pilsner is used to describe any sort of light, easy-drinking beer, typical of the major American brands, which all seem to be competing to make the most flavorless brew.

While some German pilsners (led by Spaten, Radeberger, and Bitburger), as well as two Czechs (Pilsner Urquell and Czechvar), are readily available here, American-made true pilsners have been niche products. That’s starting to change. While there is no brand of American pilsner distributed nationally, several excellent examples have popped up on the micro and regional levels. In the East you can find excellent pilsners by Boston’s Beer Works and the Brooklyn Brewery. Pennsylvania has two local pilsners, Tröegs Sunshine Pils and the Prima Pils of the Victory Brewing Company. Dogfish Head, in Delaware, makes the cheeky Golden Shower Imperial Pilsner. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery (brewer of Fat Tire) puts out a mellow, balanced pilsner called Blue Paddle. And the West Coast is rife with good pilsner, from Oregon’s Rogue and from Lagunitas Brewing Company, Trumer, the North Coast Brewing Company, and Sudwerk, all out of northern California.

Ales are street, pilsners are haute couture

A pilsner should have “a notable malty character, which you can smell and taste as a warm smell of rich grain, carrying above it a floral, spicy hoppiness,” according to David Sapsis, the Sacramento-based vice president of the Beer Judges Certification Program (BJCP), an organization that trains people to judge brew contests (using technical terms that would slip comfortably into a conversation with any NASA aerospace engineer). The color can range, he says, anywhere from a light straw to a deep, burnished gold. It’s a medium-bodied beer with a refreshing zing of carbonation.

Attaining that ideal pilsner taste has been a challenge for domestic producers. As Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California, and producer of the outstanding Lagunitas Pils, told me, “It’s the most challenging beer we make. Whereas ales are street, pilsners are haute couture. Ales are fermented in 14 days, while the pilsner takes five weeks. It ties up cash flow, and they’re challenging fermentations. If something goes wrong, you’ve lost over a month of work.”

Another issue is fragility. Strictly speaking, pilsners don’t travel well. Imported beer in general is not often treated as well as imported wine. It may spend weeks in hot shipping yards before making its way to store shelves. The signature pilsner green bottle doesn’t protect the contents from light exposure, which can leave a beer smelling “skunky.”

Trumer Pils, which originally hailed from Salzburg, leapfrogged the import issues altogether by starting a Berkeley-based plant and brewing the pilsner stateside using malt and hops imported from Austria. The company spent a year making batch after batch, tweaking the recipe until even the owners of Trumer Salzburg could not tell the difference between the two. The result is pilsner that is much finer than if the product had been shipped from Austria. In a concession to marketing conventions, Trumer’s bottle is green, and I’ve encountered a few skunks. Still, Trumer is a lovely beer.

Don’t burn the malt

Pilsner originated in the town of Pilsen in western Bohemia, where Pilsner Urquell (meaning “the original pilsner”) is still brewed today. It was the first light-colored beer to be mass produced and exported, a milestone that made possible the swigging of Corona on a Mexican beach or a Heineken in Amsterdam.

The first half of the 19th century was the dark ages of beer. Beer (really ale) was brown and cloudy, drunk in pewter vessels. Then lager was developed, using a yeast that required a long, cold (as opposed to short and warm) fermentation but produced a lighter, zestier product. In Pilsen, the arrival of this style coincided with a new technology that allowed malt to be roasted without turning it brown or black. The result was a pale beer that sparkled with clarity. Innovations in glass production allowed it to be bottled in a way that emphasized its visual splendor.

A taste for lager spread throughout Europe, though it was embraced most ardently in Bohemia and Germany. Pilsner quickly became a style and not just a single beer from a particular place. But, as with any popular style, the knockoffs weren’t far behind, and as you traveled farther from the source, beers called pilsner became fainter echoes of the original thing.

Assertiveness training

Today’s Budweiser and Miller might take their inspiration from true pilsner, but they lack key elements. Number one is malt. A great pilsner or lager should be based on nothing but. Instead, many light lagers are made with cheaper substitutes like corn and rice, which can be fermented to produce alcohol, but they lack that sweet richness that only malt can provide.

Number two is hops, which adds bitterness. Bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs), and according to Sapsis, a true pilsner should have anywhere from 25 to 45 IBUs. Pilsner Urquell, for example, weighs in at about 40 IBUs. Miller Lite and Bud are somewhere in the 10–12 range. At only 25 IBUs, Trumer Pils—perfectly balanced, with that lush, malty core—is less assertively hoppy than many of the other European pilsners. But its makers see it as sort of a gateway brew. As brewmaster Lars Larson says, “We think the time’s right to introduce Americans to a more flavorful beer, but not one so overwhelming as to turn people off.”

Even in the Midwest, sales of imported beers are up, which suggests a growing appetite for more flavorful beers, like Tröegs Sunshine Pils, which at 45 IBUs is about as hoppy as they come. Tröegs beers, however, are distributed only in six states on the East Coast, and there is no thought of expansion. “Right now, world domination is not really in our plans,” says owner/brewer John Trogner. “From day one we decided to keep our beer at a size we feel comfortable with. The whole idea of a local beer is to keep the beer fresh. We would never sacrifice that quality.” Another refreshingly bitter brew, California’s Lagunitas, is distributed in just 13 states. Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils goes to 18 states. For the most part, great pilsner in this country will continue to be a local and regional affair.

It’s possible that no pilsner may ever taste as good as it does back in Prague. In fact, no beer may ever really taste as good as it did back when you were underage and free, with only a Eurail pass as a guide.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.